Chinese State Media, in a Show of Openness, Print Jet Photos
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BEIJING -- The J-15 Flying Shark is China's newest attack jet, a sinuous fighter with the folding wings, shortened tail cone and bulked-up landing gear it needs to serve on China's first aircraft carrier, which is expected to start sea trials soon. It is indisputable evidence of China's growing mastery of military technology.
Also military technology of Russia and Ukraine, albeit not entirely with their consent.
Barely two weeks after splashing photographs of the aircraft carrier on the Internet, China's state media on Monday published the first close-up pictures of the J-15. The day before, Web sites that focus on China's military had run the same photograph, snapped outside the Shenyang plant in northeast China where the plane is being developed.
Like the aircraft carrier it will call home, the jet faces years of tests and refinement before it will formally enter service, military analysts say. The photographs nevertheless suggest that the People's Liberation Army, long notoriously secretive, is lifting some veils.
"The recent spate of releases of photographs of airplanes under development is a sign of relaxed control of military information in China," Lan Yun, an editor at the Beijing-based Modern Ships magazine, said in an interview. "It could be seen as a sign of more transparency of the Chinese military."
Mr. Lan and Andrei Chang, the Hong Kong-based editor of Kanwa Asian Defense Review, said that the photograph indicated that the aircraft had passed factory tests and was now bound for flight testing.
Internet posts by analysts and Chinese aviation enthusiasts point to a fighter crammed with the best technology China can produce: holographic "heads-up" instrument displays, advanced anti-ship radar and, Mr. Lan said, self-guiding missiles, in contrast to the gravity-controlled bombs and sight-guided missiles that largely populate China's existing 3,200-aircraft fleet.
When it is deployed -- probably sometime after 2015 -- the J-15 will signal the dawn of a new ability by China to assert authority along its coastline.
The carrier and its jet are said to employ the best Chinese technology, but both are also direct descendants of weaponry devised in the dying days of the old Soviet Union.
China's new carrier, expected to be christened the Shi Lang, is a retrofitted version of a 1988 Soviet aircraft carrier that Chinese interests bought from Ukraine after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, supposedly for conversion into a floating casino in Macao. But the Macao gambling license never materialized, and as many had suspected, the ship wound up elsewhere -- in Dalian, a city in northeastern China where workers began a decade-long retrofit.
The J-15 has followed an even more tortuous route.
At the century's turn, many news reports say, the Chinese beseeched Moscow to sell them a Sukhoi-33, a 1980s Soviet fighter capable of landing on carriers. Moscow refused. But in 2001, the Chinese bought an Su-33 prototype from Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, and began a teardown to learn its secrets.
The Russians were incensed.
Yet the J-15 unofficially unveiled this week, which externally seems a clone of the Su-33, in fact has been remade inside with Chinese improvements. Mr. Lan said that advances in the plane's outdated avionics and missile-guidance systems had made it a far more sophisticated version of the Russian jet.
The J-15 is being compared in some quarters to the American F-18, a workhorse on Navy carriers. But Mr. Lan said it had a shorter range, in large part because its takeoff method -- flying off a ski-jump-style runway -- dictated that it could carry less fuel than a comparable American jet, which is propelled off a flat carrier runway.
Flying a ski-jump is not duck soup. And in February, a Ukrainian court convicted a Russian man of conspiring to give the Chinese details of a Crimean air base that had been used to train Su-33 pilots to take off from a carrier's ski-jump ramp.
In Huludao, a navy installation on China's northeast coast, workers are said to have built a rough clone of the Crimea test center, complete with a ski ramp for ascending jets.
None of this is exceptional. Russian, Chinese and American espionage agents wage unacknowledged wars to steal the others' technology.
But the Chinese, some experts say, are notably adept.
"They take what they can get, and improve what they can," Abraham M. Denmark, an independent expert on China's military in Washington, said in an interview. "It's a strategy that permeates many of their innovations."
First Published April 26, 2011 12:01 am